Congress Refuses to Unfix a Problem

By John McFerrin

In March, 2017, The Highlands Voice reported that Congress was about to unfix a problem with the waste of natural gas on public lands.  The Bureau of Land Management had done regulations to correct the problem.  There was, however, a resolution in Congress to prevent the regulations from taking effect.  It zipped through the House in three days and was up for consideration in the Senate.  The story assumed it would pass.

In the Senate, however, it was a different story.  With all the Democrats (including Senator Manchin) along with three Republicans (Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Maine) and John McCain (Ariz.) voting against, the resolution did not pass.  The original regulation goes into effect as planned.  The March, 2017, story turned out to be fake news.

The problem that the regulations hope to correct is the waste of natural gas from public lands.  The Bureau of Land Management manages leases and sales of natural gas that is located on federal lands.  One of the problems with this program is that we are wasting a lot of the gas.  Some of it is flared (burned on site), vented (released to the atmosphere) or leaked.  Gas that is leaked, flared, or burned is not sold, depriving the United States of royalties.

Royalty loss is not the only problem.  The wasted gas harms local communities and surrounding areas through visual and noise impacts from flaring, and contributes to regional and global air pollution problems of smog, particulate matter, and toxics (such as benzene, a carcinogen). Vented or leaked gas contributes to climate change, because the primary constituent of natural gas is methane, an especially powerful greenhouse gas  with climate impacts roughly 25 times those of carbon dioxide (CO2), if measured over a 100-year period, or 86 times those of CO2, if measured over a 20-year period. Thus, measures to conserve gas and avoid waste may significantly benefit local communities, public health, and the environment.

To fix these problems, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a rule that would require gas companies to stop or reduce the flaring, venting, and leaking at gas wells and compressor stations on public lands.

Correcting the problem could be done at a relatively small net cost.  The additional equipment and operational changes required to comply would have a cost.  At the same time, the gas that had been wasted could be sold.  According to Bureau of Land Management estimates, the value of the additional gas captured and sold would not entirely offset the additional cost of compliance. It estimates that gas company profits would decrease by an average of fifteen hundredths of one per cent as a result of the rule.

Thanks to the efforts of the Senate, the regulations addressing this can remain in effect.